God’s Economics, Part III: It’s All Temporary

(Cross-posted, as usual, to my church’s blog.)

In this series, I’m going to discuss some of what I see as the central economic principles found in Scripture, and what they mean for us not only as individuals but also as a Church and as a society. If we accept, as any Christian should, that God has something to say to us about the way we deal with wealth and resources, what is God saying? What is God calling us to do? This series will address some basic principles of what I’m calling “God’s Economics,” and then expand a bit to discuss what those principles should tell us about our personal economic behavior, our Church’s prophetic role in talking about wealth and resources, and our roles as voters and citizens in a democratic republic that is also the richest nation in the history of the human race.

Previously in this series:

Principle #1: All wealth belongs to God.
Principle #2: God is generous, not stingy.

And now…

Principle #3: Property, and the lack thereof, is contingent.

Okay, brass tacks time. The first principle was relatively straightforward, even if it offered a conclusion that required so much faith that it is almost unsustainably radical. The second principle, though, takes a bit more unpacking: Property is contingent. The “ownership” of wealth, or of the means of producing wealth, is neither permanent nor immutable; similarly, the condition of the lack of property is also contingent and temporary.

To explore this, let’s take a look at what I think is many Episcopalians’ least-favorite part of the Bible: The Books of the Law. Now, I’m of the opinion, as I’d imagine most readers of this piece are, that the specifics of the Torah aren’t exactly the point; many of us in the Episcopal Church are quite fond of shrimp cocktails, we wear clothes with more than one fabric, more of us watch men throwing and carrying pigs’ skin on fall weekends than will probably admit it in polite company, and, most importantly, our LGBT brothers and sisters are accepted and welcomed in the Episcopal Church and at St. Stephen’s—all of which aren’t exactly in line with the ceremonial laws of ancient Israel.

But what these books do give us are some general principles about God’s character and the character of the community God sets out for God’s people: those in God’s community are to be purely devoted to God, and they are to treat one another and those outside the community with justice and respect, acknowledging that we and the world around us all belong to God (see part I).

“[God said to Moses:] ‘The land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.’” —Leviticus 25:23

In ancient Israel, the land was the chief source of wealth; riches would come to those who could successfully grow crops or mine materials that they could then sell to craftsmen or traders in the cities. The land was the source of wealth, and because of this was itself wealth. And God made it clear: the land does not belong to the Israelites, but to God; the Israelites are “foreigners and strangers” God is allowing to work God’s land.

This makes the Israelites’ use of the land contingent on following the owner’s rules; like any landlord, God reserves for God’s-self the right to decide what’s going to happen on God’s land, and how God’s tenants are going to behave. So what are the owner’s rules about how the tenants are supposed to behave on the owner’s land? There are quite a few principles to be found in the Law about this, but here are two pretty radical ones, particularly for our contemporary economic system:

A. Debt is temporary and strictly regulated.

If an Israelite man got into too much financial trouble, he could borrow money and go into debt—but unlike in our society, where your debts will travel with you for the rest of your life (and possibly into your descendants’ lives), debt under the Law couldn’t last longer than six years.

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. —Deuteronomy 15:1-2

God’s other major rule about debt was that its purpose wasn’t to enrich the lender, but to help the borrower; lenders were specifically enjoined not to take any profit from lending.

If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. —Leviticus 25:35-37

B. Ownership of the means of producing wealth is temporary, not permanent.

The other major economic principle set out in the Law is the Year of Jubilee—when (among other things) most of the land, with the exception of the cities, was returned to the tribe who originally occupied it.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. […] In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. —Leviticus 25:10,13

According to the Law, you can’t actually buy or sell land; rather, as Leviticus 25:16 says, “what is really being sold to you is the number of crops” that can be grown from the land. (That’s why that part of Leviticus 25 says that land sales should be pro-rated according to the number of years before the next Jubilee.) The land remains God’s, bequeathed to each of the twelve tribes; at the end of the fiftieth year, everyone would go back to their tribe’s land, and the land would be completely redistributed.Since land is wealth (as verse 16 makes clear, you’re selling the wealth that comes from the land), then the principle is this: Every second generation—every 50 years—the sources of the nation’s wealth are redistributed, and every Israelite gets a piece.

So where do we go from here?

First, it’s important to note that because the Law was all about differentiating the Israelites—God’s chosen people, for whom God was setting aside the land of Israel—from the other peoples in the area, these rules were only for Israelites lending to each other. They were, according to the Law, free to charge interest to non-Israelites to their hearts’ content, and didn’t have to forgive their debts. Some would use this to suggestthat these aren’t intended to be universal values, but are contingent to the people of ancient Israel alone.

However, in setting out the principles for how God wanted God’s people to live with one another, God was setting out the principles for community—for people who would live with each other not just as fellow-citizens, but as neighbors. These are principles not for atomized individuals forming business relationships with one another, but for neighbors whose relationships with one another are personal and spiritual as well as financial. They seem almost specifically designed not to allow for the formation of grudges or resentments.

So these principles were, at their heart, about being neighbors to one another—and Christ expanded the question of “who is my neighbor” in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he set out neighborliness as a condition not of being helped, but of helping:

[Jesus asked:] “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” —Luke 10:36-37

We’re enjoined by Christ, a tradition we’re getting a lot better at in the Episcopal Church and continually working on within St. Stephen’s (particularly in our Widening The Circle/Agrandando El Circulo campaign), to be a neighbor to everyone, to love one another as Christ loved us.

And Jesus made it clear that the economic principles of the Law were on His mind in His ministry. In Luke 4, Jesus returns from his wilderness sojourn to Nazareth—his hometown—and in the Synagogue stands to read the scroll of Isaiah. Jesus proclaims that “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61) is fulfilled in their sight. What’s “the year of the Lord’s favor”? Many Biblical scholars believe this to be a reference to the year of Jubilee. That, I think, is one of the many things about Jesus that scared the powers of the time—not only was He proclaiming His sovereignty over against the imperial and religious powers, but he was also telling the economically powerful that they were going to be held to account and called to give the land back to the people.

So where does this principle lead us? I’d love to discuss in the comments where you all think this is going… but I also have some thoughts about this that I’m going to share in next week’s installment.